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In praise of Arjuna

SRI Lanka has a new skipper in Sanath Jayasuriya but the old man is likely to remain in the team until he wants to call it a day. And despite all his recent doings and his confrontations, I feel the Lankan selectors and board officials have not treated this man, Arjuna Ranatunge, right.

The public are often criticised for having short memory spans when it comes to players. It appears that the selectors and officials are no better. Have they forgotten the relative anonymity in which Sri Lankan cricket languished until Ranatunge became the leader?

Observers are universally agreed that Australia's two most abrasive captains have been the Chappell brothers; the younger, Greg, has been marginally ahead in the nastiness stakes. And Ranatunge earned praise from none less an agressor than Gregory Stephen Chappell himself. Praise for standing up when he had to, during Lanka's early days in the international arena.

Let's face it, Lanka had a rough time during its early days in international cricket. They had to wait a long time before they were granted full Test status. They were rarely given Tests by the established nations. (Even now, England does not deign to give them more than a one-off Test. The Poms could earlier allege that Lanka were not worth more than a single Test. But nowadays, it must be seen more as an excuse to avoid defeats at the hands of the Lankans; the last two one-off Tests have seen decisive Sri Lankan victories.)

And at such a stage in the cricketing life of a country, an aggressive captain was needed. Sri Lanka were known for playing attractive cricket but always went home the losers. In their first 32 Tests, they won just two, while losing 18. Ranatunge was skipper for the next 56. There were 12 wins against 19 losses. Certainly a much better record. But that seems to have been forgotten.

Until Ranatunge was made skipper, Lanka had won just one Test series -- at home against India in 1985-86. That was the team's first Test win as well. They drew one against Pakistan the same year by winning one Test and losing one in a three-match series but had been beaten by the Pakistanis earlier the same year, losing two of three Tests. Ranatunge led the team to their first series win against Pakistan at home in 1994-95 (2-0) and then repeated his success in Pakistan with a 2-1 series victory in 1995-96. These achievements seem to have been forgotten as well.

In all, he led the team to series wins over England, New Zealand, and Zimbabwe as well. Under him, Lanka played their first Tests against the West Indies and South Africa. His experience has taken the team to heights which it could not achieve before that. And Sri Lanka, it must be remembered, had a great many exceptionally talented players in their ranks before the Ranatunge era. The present lot look like amateurs in front of players like Roy Dias, Duleep Mendis, Sidath Wettimuny, Ravi Ratnayake, Rumesh Ratnayake, Ranjan Madugalle... need I continue?

Lanka's record in one-day cricket under Ranatunge is extremely good - they have won 86 matches, lost 89 and tied one with eight matches ending without results. The World Cup win must not be forgotten. This is a team which, until Zimbabwe came along, was known as the babes of international cricket.

Without doubt, Ranatunge has his bad points. He can be obnoxious on the field. He can rile people and irritate the opposition. But I think he merely gives as good as he gets. And when one is playing against Australia, one does have to stomach a lot of things!

I like the attitude of the West Indies selectors in this respect. Even though Lara led the team to a 0-5 hammering in South Africa, they gave him a chance to regain his reputation. What happened is too well known to bear repeating. Ranatunge could have been left at the helm for the series against his old enemy Australia. There would have been great motivation for him to deliver. And if he were to fail, then a tactful removal would be the way to go. No confrontation, this man has done enough for the team and his country.

In truth, Jayasuriya will not find it easy to skipper a team in which his old captain figures. Ranatunge has a fairly dominant personality and his presence hangs over everything on the field. He may have been slack over the last six months or so but he hasn't lost it all. It would probably be something like watching Desmond Haynes captain the West Indies with Viv Richards in the side; this happened during one of the so-called Master's series in Sharjah and one could see who was actually calling the tune!

I think it is a great pity Ranatunge's captaincy had to end this way.